Friday, June 29, 2018

Balak—Mission Creep

From the peaks of rocks I see them, from the heights I gaze upon them;
this is a people who dwell alone, not reckoning themselves one of the nations. (Bam. 23:9)

The characteristic Rabbinic back and forth about this Balaamic prophecy touches upon the question of the statement’s status as a blessing, a curse, or possibly both: 

Rashi’s eschatological formulation: “as Targum explains, they will not suffer destruction as other nations will, as it is says (Jeremiah 30:11), “for I shall annihilate all the nations” and Israel will not be counted amongst them”, that the Jews will not suffer the national extinction that is the fate of so many; 

The Netziv’s derivation, as a warning against assimilation: “If it is a people content to be alone, faithful to its distinctive identity, then it will be able to dwell in peace. But if Jews seek to be like the nations, the nations will not consider them worthy of respect”;

and a unique dual interpretation by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, focusing on “badad” and its concordance: “badad, 'alone', in the Hebrew Bible [] is used about a leper: 'He shall live alone [badad]; his dwelling place shall be outside the camp' (Lev. 13:46)[;] by Isaiah: 'The fortified city stands desolate [badad], an abandoned settlement, forsaken like the desert' (Isa. 27:I0) [; and,] [m]ost famously, it occurs in the first line of the book of Lamentations: 'How solitary [badad] sits the city once full of people.’”

Rabbi Sacks further explicates how he sees the curse: “There is the psychological phenomenon, I said, of the self-fulfilling prophecy…That, I concluded, was the-perennial Jewish danger. If you define yourself as the people that dwells alone, that will be your fate. You will have decided that this is the Jewish fate that nothing can change. It was ever thus and always will be. Jews have enemies, but we also have friends, and if we worked harder at it we would have more.”

Yet he also writes: “We should never abandon our distinctiveness. It is what makes us who we are. Nor is there any contradiction between this and the universalism of the prophets. To the contrary – and this is the life changing idea: In our uniqueness lies our universality. By being what only we are, we contribute to humanity what only we can give.”

Based upon the ostensible parameters, one could suggest the following:  Judaism was never meant to be isolationist; one cannot broadcast it’s message in a vacuum.  However, Judaism universality is contingent upon and ancillary to its parochialism and provincialism.  In other words: Judaisms message and messaging is always its own.

What would that mean in practical terms?

In recent times, a lot of ink has been spilled and bytes fried to pigeonhole Judaism’s tenets in order to prove that they might align in aggregate with certain political programs, left or right.  

There are times when those who predominantly populate one side of the political fence seem to be more sympathetic to Jewish concerns; at the moment at least in this country, one can hardly argue credibly that the left is more Judeophilic, but not so long ago the roles were reversed: the 1992 Democratic National Convention has suppressed the pro-Palestinian emanation from Jesse Jackson’s acolytes that had been rampant in Atlanta four years prior, while the George HW Bush admin and the James Baker Dept of State were barely disguising their intentions to continue pressing the Jewish State into one-sided concessions while the President was dog whistling about “lobbyists”.  Asserting that Judaism is, or should be, “Left” or “Right”, is counterproductive and self-destructive.

There are times we need to make policy alliances, but the possibly has even more pitfalls: both outsiders and all too often our own start to assume that Judaism, again, aligns with a political program.  Until recently, the possibly more dangerous alliance looked like it might be with the religious right, who shared concerns about freedom of conscience, educational policy, cultural pollution, and traditional values, not to mention Zionism, but who all too often would betray their evangelizing and eschatological tendencies.  Some still assume that there have to be political and philosophical dovetails in places where there really aren’t.  

(Also, there have been stated worries on occasion that religious Jews can’t be seen to be less religious in comparison to religious non-Jews.  Aside from the aforementioned issues, it also led to an ecumenical stance against the Markey bill, and questioning the Trump border policies because we can’t be seen to be less rachmanim bnei rachmanim than the other religious groups that were ostensibly disturbed.  It isn’t necessarily the best method of policymaking.) 

However, the bigger problem by far now is the misappropriation and distortion of Judaism based on “Tikkun Olam” as its First Principle.  This is a thin veneer for the aggressive promulgation of “social justice” prerogatives as determined by intersectional tenets.  No matter how many classical Judaic sources that the ostensibly religious social justice warriors can cobble together to prove that classical Judaism supports—or even “commands”—progressivism, the entire edifice falls because of its faulty premise: a progressive universalism that is as supersessionist—if not more—than Christianity in at its most Judeophobic—is ipso facto no longer Judaism.  It is telling that the keynote speaker at the recent graduation ceremony of possibly the flagship progressive Jewish institution exhorted its most recent class to self-erase through mass intermarriage as if it were a Jewish duty.  Even Gandhian musings about Jews committing collective suicide were less abhorrent.

Also, in contradistinction to Rabbi Sacks’ salient point, Rabbi Shimon Schwab once remarked that “the Americans are not our enemies, but they are not our friends”.  Irrespective of the possibility that Rabbi Schwab’s hahkafic inclinations are/were more isolationist—for lack of a better term—than Rabbi Sacks’, there is a more specific point to remade beyond assimilation or America.

Despite Rabbi Sacks’ asserting that “if we worked harder at [making friends], we would have more”, at times we might not be alone, but we might wish we were.

There was a time when Jews theoretically aspired to be “white people” and were rejected as another iteration of the “other”.  More recently, Jews have been belatedly granted that wish, only now all white people are considered in some circles to be congenitally morally defective because of privilege and imperial history.  The conundrum that Jews are considered to be simultaneously both economically rapacious oligarchs and anarchic extractive revolutionaries never really went away, but it has gained a life it was missing for decades.  Now the most traditional Jews have been pigeonholed as Trump supporters, which ostensibly presents a PR issue for some.

Leaving aside the question of where Jewish concepts saliently fall on the political continuum, this might be where the Balaamic “curse” comes into play: we seem to lack the unfettered ability to choose who our “friends” are.  In this way, anticipated Heavenly “snapback” might be expected if our unique, exclusive message is in danger of dilution, even—or especially—if some of our own are at the forefront of committing adulteration.

If nothing else, it prevents mission creep.

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